Question and Answer Improv

Some of my students create beautiful melodies by instinct. Most don’t. I’ve been stymied in my attempts to teach them improv, not because they can’t grasp what the left hand needs to do, but because they can’t grasp what the right hand needs to do. That was the part I thought would be obvious, but I was wrong. I’ve been working on melodies with them for months now and today we had a breakthrough with this activity.

Question and Answer Improv Activity
A coin-flipping lesson activity

What You Need:

  • A coin (any kind)
    • I used a silver dollar because an unfamiliar coin generates interest
  • One die to generate a key signature
    • I used a blank die and wrote on the sides: C, G, D, F, Am, and ?
    • It would work just as well to use a regular die and assign each number one of those key signatures.

Setup:

  • None

Explanation (to the student):

  • Today we are using a technique that many composers have used, called Question and Answer Phrasing.
  • One of the most famous examples is in “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The first part is the question:

twinkle 1

  • We can’t stop here because we didn’t end on the home note (C). It leaves us wondering what comes next.
  • What comes next is the answer:

twinkle 2

  • The answer does end on the home note (C), but that’s not the only thing that makes it a good answer phrase.
  • Note that the question is exactly two measures long. The answer is also exactly two measures long.
  • Note that the question uses quarter notes and half notes and it likes to repeat the quarter notes.
  • The answer continues that rhythmic pattern and the use of repeating notes. This is what makes it a good answer. If we didn’t do anything like that, it would be as if I asked you, “What’s 7 plus 2?” and you said, “Sharks!” That answer doesn’t go with that question.
  • We want our answer phrases to go with the questions, so they need to be the same length and use similar rhythms, articulation, or note patterns. Above all they need to end on the home note.

How to Play:

  • The first person flips the coin. If it lands on heads, the flipper should then improv a question phrase. The other person will then improv an answer. If it lands on tails, the other person should improv a question phrase, and the flipper should then improv the answer.
    • The question should:
      • Use C major. Do not end on C.
      • It should have definite rhythm and either one full measure, or two full measures.
    • The answer should:
      • End on C.
      • Be the same length as the question and fit in stylistically. Be as lenient as you want here.
  • Repeat with the other player flipping the coin.
  • When the student has the hang of it, you can add a wrinkle. Use the die to determine what key signature the melody should be in. (Even some of my younger students can handle this. Just show them where to put their hands and tell them to stick to just the five notes their fingers are on.)

 

Variations:

  • To make it easier:
    • Stick with one measure only and stay in C major.
    • Count out loud if you need to.
  • To make it harder:
    • Change the time signature.
    • Make the phrases longer.
    • Require them to move beyond a five finger pattern.

 

Play Like an Animal (Improv)

This is a very short improv exercise that most of my students love. You can repeat it as many times as you want, so it’s a good time filler regardless of how much time you have.

What You Need:

  • Nothing

Setup:

  • None

How to Play:

  • Ask the student to choose an animal. Any animal will work, though it’s most fun if there is something distinctive about that animal. Kangaroos, cheetahs, eels, and turtles are all good choices.
  • Talk about what musical characteristics describe that animal.
    • Fast or slow?
    • Loud or quiet?
    • Legato or staccato?
    • Major or minor?
  • Play an improv duet together about that animal.
    • I usually stick to C major or A minor for this because we’re working on musicality more than we are working on key signatures.
    • I just play the primary chords in whatever style suits the animal.
    • The student makes up a melody to go with it.
    • The student should end on the tonic.
  • Afterwards, be sure to give some compliments about it. Did it have rhythm? Did it stick within the key signature? Did it have a motif? Etc.
  • If you repeat this, try picking an animal that is very different.
giraffe-2222908_1920
Play Like an Animal! (Piano Improv Exercise)

Valentine Rhythm Dictation

Among my students, Valentine’s Day is controversial. Their reaction ranges from love to hate, with most hovering around total indifference. Fortunately, there is a way to make a Valentine’s activity that appeals to all of the above because the poems range from the traditionally sweet, through the silly surprising, down to the frankly insulting. I used this activity with all my students of all levels. The only difference was that the more advanced students could do it faster and with less help.

What You Need:

Setup:

  • None

How to Play:

  • Show the student all the Valentine poems so they can pick their favorite.
  • Determine the time signature.
    • I do this by telling them I’m going to clap and say the first measure (“Roses are”). Once they figure out that it’s in 3/4 time, they can write that before the first word of the poem.
  • Draw the first bar line.
    • Since I’ve already told them that the first measure ends after the word “are,” they need a bar line there.
  • Draw the first three notes above the first three syllables.
    • Repeat counting and saying the first measure. Some students may need a few hints to realize that each of those syllables gets a quarter note.
  • Finish the first line.
    • Count and say the entire first line. I made the final word a dotted half note. Obviously, alternate rhythms are possible, but the main point is not what the rhythm is, but whether the student can identify and write whatever rhythm you do.
  • Dictate the second line.
    • I did it as a whole line now that they have the idea of what to do.
    • Point out that the rhythm between first and second lines are exactly the same. That is normal and expected in this type of poetry. In music, it would be called a rhythmic motif.
  • Repeat the process for the third and fourth lines. The rhythms here will not be the same.
  • Have the student say and clap the whole poem in rhythm.
  • If there is still time, move to the piano and compose a song. The notes can be any note in C major (all the white keys). The rhythm should be the rhythm they wrote down.

Variations:

  • To make it easier, you can put in all the bar lines and time signature first, and do only one measure at a time.
  • To make it harder, don’t use the natural speaking rhythm. Syncopation or other unexpected rhythms usually go over well.
  • To make it longer, have the student change the rhythm after having written down yours.
  • To review the rhythms again afterwards, use percussion instruments to play it.

 

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Jingle Bells, Lead Sheet Activity

In the final week before Christmas, we were playing around with lead sheets and accompaniment styles. Jingle Bells is a great one to use because the kids all know it, and the right hand never goes out of a standard 5-finger pattern. Songs like that are rare.

When I planned this, I was worried it would be hard and frustrating for some of my kids, so I had planned a lot of Christmas jokes to use as interludes to break the tension. I needn’t have worried. They all enjoyed it, and I didn’t end up using any of the jokes at all.

What You Need:

Setup:

  • For older kids, no setup required.
  • For younger kids, you could lay the cards out on the floor and use dice and a Christmas ornament to select a card.

How to Play:

  • The student starts by sight reading just the right hand of the melody.
    • Beginners could do just the first line, or they could learn it by rote instead of reading.
  • Introduce or review the concept of a lead sheet.
  • Reinforce the concept by playing Jingle Bells with the Root Note Accompaniment. That card has a carrot on my cards.
    • Depending on the student, they could either play both hands or just the left hand.
  • Once they’ve got the idea, start drawing cards (or rolling dice) and play Jingle Bells as many times and in as many ways as you have time for.
    • The notes on the bottom of each card are there as a reminder only. The student should play by understanding the pattern, not by reading.
    • The accompaniment styles vary widely in difficulty. For each card, make a quick evaluation about whether this student should play right hand, left hand, or both. As the teacher, you play whichever hand the student is not using. Many of the styles can be made easier by using both hands to play it.
  • At the end, spread out all the cards the student has used and ask their opinion on which style of Jingle Bells they liked best. They liked being able to give their own musical review.

 

Jingle Bells, Accompaniment Style

Shapes (for improv or composition)

Most of my students love doing improv, but I find that the ability to create a good melody is very unevenly distributed among them. Some of them create great melodies just on instinct, and I don’t need to do much but encourage. Others stare at me blankly, repeat a broken C major chord over and over, or play an endless succession of one-fingered quarter notes that seem to be chosen at random. Regardless of their ability level, this exercise can help them think outside the box and create more interesting melodies.

What You Need:

  • Piano Music (Whatever piece the student is currently working on is fine.)
  • Blank paper
  • Writing Utensil
  • Cards with various curves on them. I use a set I drew by hand in about 5 minutes, but you could also print and cut up these.

What to Do:

  • With the student, take a look at the piano music. Use the blank paper to draw the shape of the melody in the first phrase. Explain it as you go: “See how the second note goes up from the first? I’m going up on my paper. Then it stays there for three beats, so I’m going to draw a straight line. Then it jumps down to a lower note.”
  • Have the student draw the melody of the second phrase.
  • Whenever the student has got the idea, go back to the piano. Have the student pick one of the cards and create a melody based on that shape. It does not matter which way is up on the card: you can create different melodies depending on which way you hold it. Some of my kids needed me to do the first card to get them the idea. Some of them also needed several tries to get it right.
  • After you’ve done several shapes individually, you can string them together to create a song. The student shouldn’t be doing any left hand accompaniment at this point, but you can do some as a duet part.
  • If you’re doing this as improv, you’re done. If you’re doing it as a composition, you can then help your student write out the melody they’ve just created.

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